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Political Wrap

October 19, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: David, many unkind and sarcastic things have been said about the Congress of the United States, particularly the House and the way it reacted to its anthrax scare. What do you think about that?

DAVID BROOKS: I have some sympathy for the wimps over there in the House. You know, in 1861, Abraham Lincoln snuck into Washington after an assassination attack and was eviscerated in the press as the House is today. Four years later, he was assassinated. Sometimes there are real causes for your fear. We have an enemy that has killed over 5,000 people in a single day, terrorist cells on the loose with access to anthrax. I think after the complacency, to have some caution is not the worst thing in the world.

MARK SHIELDS: You’re either a House person, a Senate person, a dog person, a cat person. I’m a House person. They had an agreement as late as Wednesday morning with the President at breakfast: They were both going to go back and say, “Look, we are going to close down.”

JIM LEHRER: Because it had gotten… Explain why.

MARK SHIELDS: They had gotten the report of the anthrax, an earlier report that it was in the vent system in the Senate Hart Building, and that Senator Daschle reported that 28 of his own staff people had been tested and showed symptoms or whatever.

JIM LEHRER: Exposure.

MARK SHIELDS: Exposure, and for that reason they agreed to go back, and “look, we’re going out for four days; let’s go out for five.” They’re going to be closed Friday through Tuesday, Thursday through Tuesday– why not go out a day early? So they go back, and the House does it, and the Senate goes into caucus and says, “hey, we’re not leaving– we’re not going to bow on these terrorists,” or whatever. So immediately they renege on the deal, the Senate does. The House has already followed through on the agreement reached, and the Senate then goes into one magnificent photo opportunity. The House always viewed the Senate as show horses versus workhorses: “They’re surrounded by staff; they don’t know issues the same way the House members do.” When the House member, the very handsome, well-chiseled features, perfect profile House member got elected to the Senate, an intellectually challenged member still in the Senate, the House members of both parties said the intellectual level of both Houses was raised by his election to the Senate. That’s the kind of attitude– the Senator has the TV cameras, CNN, the others come in and take pictures of them showing them at work, quiet ‘High Noon,’ Gary Cooper, ‘we’re not afraid.’ Then they do nothing and they’re gone and hour later. Someone has to show them how to dial nine to get an outside line because most of them have staff to do that. So I’m with the House on this one.

DAVID BROOKS: This is sheer prejudice. I’m a Senate person. You say tomato, I say to-mah-to.

JIM LEHRER: Everybody really took some hits. One of the New York tabloids, the New York Post, John McCain was on one of the late-night talk shows last night, and said, “Profiles in Courage: House of Representatives.” So, I mean, there are messages to be sent from these kinds of things, serious messages, are there not, in a time like this?

DAVID BROOKS: They’re getting slaughtered on talk radio. People are saying, “I go to work, I show up, I open my mail– why can’t the public servants do that?” They are mad. People learned about the House Post Office as a scandal a few years ago, and that resonated through the next election. All people will know about the House post-September 11 is that they bugged out, and that will have a political effect. As I say, there is some justification for them doing it, but it will have a long-term political effect. What it should do it should chasten the Congress into saying, “you know, maybe we should trust the Executive Branch to run this war because we’re not doing a great job up here.”

MARK SHIELDS: But Jim, you know, in fairness to the House, I mean, there are 18,000 people working on the Hill. They have a report it is in the vent system.

JIM LEHRER: Dick Gephardt said that.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s what Dick Gephardt said, and I think it makes a lot of sense. It isn’t like we’re somehow hightailing it out of town.

JIM LEHRER: What about David’s point, the hot line, the little “Daily News” thing that comes out about politics in America. Ask this question, the big question of the day was, what if NBC News had just shut down 30 Rock when they got the letter or if CBS did the same thing and just said, “sorry, we’re going out of business,” which is what the Congress did? I mean, the hits are coming, right, and they’re going to continue to come, are they not?

MARK SHIELDS: It was the building itself they felt had been attacked. And NBC News, I guess all of us know, all the people were lined up who worked there and were medically examined. I mean, I think it was easier to do in a day, but…

JIM LEHRER: There are cheap shots.

MARK SHIELDS: Cheap shots. And traditionally on Capitol Hill you think the difference is between… The tension between the Democrats and the Republicans. This was between the House and the Senate. Both Gephardt and Hastert, the Democratic and Republican leaders, are joined at the hip on this one against what they think are the cheap-shot tactics of the Senate.

JIM LEHRER: Both Senator Lott and Senator Daschle were playing the game on the other side.

DAVID BROOKS: This really is Iran- Iraq. This is the real split.

JIM LEHRER: Look — on the executive branch, David, how is Tom Ridge, the new homeland security man? He came out, had his first national briefing yesterday. How did he do? How is that working?

DAVID BROOKS: I assume on substance they’re doing a great job. On publicity, I think they’re patronizing. They have had two press conferences, yesterday and today. In both cases Ridge came out with a phalanx of bureaucrats on either side, and they said we’re holding lots of teleconferences; we’re using optimum bureaucratic appraisal methods, we’re unleashing the flow charts. And it seemed extremely bureaucratic-it seemed almost, “yes, commissar, we are surpassing the five-year plans.” Trust us. Dilbert is fighting the terror war. This was in contrast to the Giuliani method, where you don’t have a bureaucratic approach, you don’t have an official, hyper confident, we’ve got our act together approach. Giuliani said after September 11, “we’re in a crisis. We are improvising here, but we’re all in it together. We are doing the best we can.” It is a method, one which is very bureaucratic and very official- press-release-oriented, and the Giuliani method, which is extremely candid. I find the Giuliani method, and I think most Americans were would, more reassuring than the PR method.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Must we forever quarrel? I’m here to defend Tom Ridge. I think he came out… Yesterday the report, the Centers for Disease Control said there was no confirmation of the case in New Jersey. The New Jersey public health official said there was confirmation of the case in New Jersey of anthrax. Tom Ridge said, “yeah, there was”– boom, over. I thought he showed a sense of command. What he’s… Contrast to not Rudy Giuliani — is Don Rumsfeld. Don Rumsfeld has been the embodiment of competence and confidence.

JIM LEHRER: He’s there every day.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s there every day, answers the questions with a sense of command and even a sense of humor. I think the problem has been conflicting, contradictory voices from the administration, hasn’t been a single voice, and I think Tom Ridge is the answer to that, and one of the problems has been John Ashcroft, the attorney general. John Ashcroft, if you turn down the sound and you have Rumsfeld on one side and Ashcroft on the other, Ashcroft doesn’t come over with the whole sense of command and confidence. In fairness to him, he has been arguing publicly for a stronger anti-terrorism legislation on the Hill. He has had to make the case sound worse. There has been a hard edge to his rhetoric. So I think Ridge – I thought he had a good opening show yesterday and showed a sense of command that one voice that little going to be heard domestically.

JIM LEHRER: The one-voice thing, the one-voice problem. Tommy Thompson, the secretary of HHS, he has had a problem from the beginning when the first case of anthrax came, did he not?

DAVID BROOKS: The crucial question with the anthrax thing was, in the Daschle anthrax episode, what size were the spores? Were they weaponized? Yesterday Ridge and his crew were not really prepared for that question. They did get their act together, but there has been a contrast between the foreign policy team, which has been so together and so disciplined, and the domestic policy team, which is not. But on substance, it is interesting the way Bush is organizing this. Tom Ridge has very much modeled his office, is going to be modeled, after the National Security Council run by Condoleezza Rice. It will be this operating center where all these 43 different agencies which contribute to the homeland defense will report to. The difference is the way ridge described it yesterday. Well, you have people like Ashcroft, Thompson, everybody else reporting to him, which is as if Rumsfeld and Colin Powell reported to Condoleezza Rice. As Ridge described it yesterday, it is an incredibly potentially powerful office he is sitting in.

JIM LEHRER: Is that just the public relations part? In other words, is he going to announce anything or… He is not going to make decisions for the FBI, the Justice Department, and HHS?

DAVID BROOKS: He described it yesterday that he would. I have trouble believing in a crisis it would not be the President.

MARK SHIELDS: It also makes the case that Tom Ridge and George W. Bush have a very close personal relationship. I think at one level the case can be made that he was George W. Bush’s choice for vice President but for a mildly pro- choice position in Pennsylvania, he probably would have been chosen. But there’s no guarantee that the next person who holds that office is going to have a similar relationship of that closeness to the President. And on the Hill, the argument has been that we need to formalize this, give it a statutory authority so that there is a relationship because there are going to be inevitable turf wars as David described. Instead of 43, I think there are 46 separate agencies that he reports to.

JIM LEHRER: It’s hard to imagine, at least hard for me to imagine — clearly it is not hard for everybody to imagine that the Attorney General of the United States and the Secretary of HHS, and the director of the FBI are going to all agree to let one man, Tom Ridge, speak to them to the public every day.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think he’s going to speak for them in the public, but there has to be one voice in my judgment. On questions… Anthrax comes out, if that’s not domestic homeland security. That transcends justice, it transcends Health and Human Services, I think it transcends all the separate departments.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly David, before we go, U.S. troops are clearly on the ground now. Don’t know how many, don’t know what they’re doing. We’ve had an excellent discussion that Margaret ran about special operations. Is the American public ready for this?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, Bush I think has done a good job of this. He has said, “We are going to be there for two or three years. People are going to get tired of this but I’m going to be relentless about this.” This is one thing I think the public is completely prepared for.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: You know, Jim, I think the President has done a good job. He certainly hasn’t said this is going to be easy, quick and over. But I think it really is a moment of truth when Dover, Delaware Air Force Base and bodies start coming back. I think that’s a moment… And I think there’s no question that the 6,000 or 5,600 from the World Trade Center go a long way toward preparing people for those casualties, but that’s the real world.

JIM LEHRER: I also realize it is going to be a moment of truth listening to our program tonight, a moment of truth for the American press because what is it… There is going to be a lot of leaks about what is going on over there and there are going to be people on the ground from the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, what do we report about this and how do we discuss it? It is going to be difficult for a lot of people to know how to handle this these next few days and weeks. Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.